The growth of militarised global apartheid and security empires – Fellows’ seminar by Catherine Besteman

14 April 2020

“Militarised apartheid is a global system developed by the global North to manage the mobility of the global South via instruments like borders, security and pass systems. It mimics South African apartheid,” said Catherine Besteman of the Department of Anthropology, Colby College, Maine.

STIAS Fellow Catherine Besteman presented her webinar on 8 April 2020

“It’s a loosely integrated effort by countries in the global North to protect themselves against the mobility of people from the global south. The new apartheid apparatus takes the form of militarised border technologies and personnel, interdictions at sea, biometric tracking of the mobile, carcerality and the criminalisation of mobility,” she continued.

Besteman is currently working on the second of three books looking at the growth of militarised security empires arising from militarised apartheid – the subject of the first book.

“Militarised security empires are emerging from and shoring up global militarised apartheid; empires based on the identification and containment of ‘risky’ people throughout the globe in concert with the expansion of securitised spaces produced through expressions of militarism by the global North. These emergent imperial formations are spatial and technological rather than territorial, and are taking shape through imperial projects that racialise and incarcerate people while securing cosmopolitan class privilege and capitalist extraction across borders, and tethering the concept of security to militarisation.”

“We are really looking at racialised spatial geography and the growth of an elaborate security apparatus to maintain racial hierarchies,” she said. “It’s about keeping people where they ‘belong’ – for example, Mexico is for the Mexicans.”

“Basically the global North makes life unsustainable for the racialised ‘underclass’ of the global South via military incursions, extraction and dispersal, uneven wealth generation, structural adjustment and austerity programmes, trade inequities and the uneven impact of climate change.”

This also incorporates various forms of control including refugee and migrant camps, detention centres, offshore holding facilities and prisons, as well as managed labour systems – “temporary passes and visas for people from the global South so that their labour can be exploited – modelled on the South African pass system.”

Some of this control is achieved by the very physical manifestation of security walls which have increased hugely since 2012 – from the much-discussed US-Mexico border wall to those on the border of India and Bangladesh, in some Gulf States and in Latin America. There has also been a growth in marine walls built to stop migrant smuggling not for rescue purposes. Most of these are built by military technology companies using sophisticated military know-how.

Tracking movement

Besteman also pointed to the massive increase in smart border technology incorporating surveillance, identification, the collection of biometrics and tracking of people’s movements to create traveller’s risk profiles with the data shared between countries of the global North.

“These are all part of the newest effort to link mobility, criminality and terrorism,” she continued. “And this response has been normalised – with the world divided into safe and risky populations which justifies military intervention to protect the former.”

She emphasised that states can literally target ‘undesirable’ people for death via ‘accidental’ drowning of refugees or untreated illnesses in detention camps. “Risky people are criminalised and thus their deaths are seen as part of war.”

She pointed to the major redirection of national spending in many countries as well as a rise of ‘securocrats’ into the political world including in South Africa.

“Militarised private security and technologies have infiltrated into the personal arena – in homes, neighbourhoods, cities, shopping centres and schools.”

“The security industry was worth $558 billion five years ago,” she said.

This apartheid has led to the emergence of security empires which increasingly have the ability to change laws and policies to prioritise the objectives of economic elites. She pointed to examples in Kenya, Bosnia and Honduras.

“In some cases these have the ability to claim land and write their own laws, controlling the police force, judiciary, as well as taxation and the extraction of resources and profit. They display a mixture of authoritarianism, extractive capitalism, military intervention, state surveillance, and incarceration and violence.”

Besteman pointed to the underlying, cross-cutting logics used to promote these developments including Islamophobia, white supremacy, protection of capitalist extraction, authoritarianism, militarisation, as well as patriarchy and gender.

“We live in a terrifying moment. Apartheid pillars are being reproduced on a global scale with race as the identifying mechanism, the development of underclasses and regulation of their mobility and the military apparatus to manage this. Security logics are evoked to legalise apartheid.”

In discussion, she addressed the use of military metaphors in the COVID-19 response; the changing dynamics in the power politics between the US, Russia and China; as well as some of the possibilities for dismantlement and resistance which will form the basis of the third book.

“Declaring war on something (including disease) is a time-honoured tradition,” she said. “Trump is trying to depict himself as a wartime President to secure votes.”

She pointed out though that militarisation of a health issue can be hugely damaging. “It’s a depiction of public health not as community but as war. And justification of the use of military means to enforce compliance. Public health must be based on community and common good. Collaboration and co-operation is not part of the military metaphor.”

However, she pointed to some resistance to all of this including active opposition by indigenous communities in countries like Mexico using novel forms of social organisation and emergent indigenous politics, as well as international groups tracking weapon sales, drone strikes, environmental and economic damage, and the human lives lost in US-led wars.

“This is certainly not sealed off from scrutiny especially by academics,” she added.

“People continue to cross borders despite knowing that prison or death might await them. There have been mass suicides and hunger strikes in detention centres as political statements.”

“Apartheid in South Africa basically ended by a mass refusal to obey as the primary form of resistance. The global South may well refuse to not be allowed mobility.”

She also explained that the huge crises facing the world – pandemics and climate change – are potential positives in the fight against some aspects of militarised apartheid.

“We need to catalogue and understand the events currently happening. It’s a changing landscape.”

“There is certainly the possibility of more effective resistance against these logics than there was two months ago,” she said. “There is increased organisation by activists – leading, for example, to moves in some US states to decarcerate youth offenders and those imprisoned for minor offences due to the pandemic. There is also an increased push for paid sick leave and universal healthcare to protect the common good and people’s livelihoods.”

“There are changes on both ends of the story right now,” she said.

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Supplied







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